Tommy Makem; Rose to Fame With Clancy Brothers

From News Services and Staff Reports
Friday, August 3, 2007

Irish singer, songwriter and storyteller Tommy Makem, 74, who teamed with the Clancy Brothers to become stars during the folk music boom of the 1950s and '60s, died Aug. 1 at his home in Dover, N.H., where he had lived for many years. He had lung cancer.

Mr. Makem, who came to the United States from his native Ireland in the 1950s to seek work as an actor, gained international fame while performing with the band known as the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem. The brothers, also from Ireland, were Tom, Liam and Paddy Clancy.

Makem, armed with a banjo, tin whistle, poetry, stagecraft and a baritone voice, helped spread stories and songs of Irish culture around the world.

He brought audiences to tears with "Four Green Fields," about a woman whose sons died trying to prevent strangers from taking her fields. Other songs included "Gentle Annie" and "Red Is the Rose."

"He just had the knack of making an audience laugh or cry, holding them in his hands," Liam Clancy told RTE Radio in Dublin.

In 1967, the New York Times called Mr. Makem and the Clancy brothers "an eight-legged, ambulatory chamber of commerce for the green isle they love so well. . . . At one point, Irish teenagers were paying as much homage to them as to the Beatles."

After touring for about nine years with the Clancy brothers, Mr. Makem struck out on his own, but he remained on friendly terms with his bandmates. Tom Clancy died in 1990 and Paddy in 1998.

Mr. Makem was born in County Armagh, Northern Ireland, and learned to sing from his mother, who knew hundreds of folk songs and tales in the Irish oral tradition.

In the 1950s, Mr. Makem and the Clancys saw the success of their first few albums -- "The Rising of the Moon" and a collection of drinking songs -- as a fluke.

In a 1994 Associated Press interview, Mr. Makem recalled that he was astonished when a Chicago club offered him more money to sing for a week than he was getting for acting with a repertory company.

As their fame spread, the Clancys and Mr. Makem appeared on "The Ed Sullivan Show" and other TV programs, and they headlined concerts at Carnegie Hall and London's Royal Albert Hall.

A young Bob Dylan was one of the folk singers who got to know Mr. Makem and the Clancy brothers during the early 1960s.

"Topical songs weren't protest songs," Dylan wrote in his memoir "Chronicles: Volume One." "What I was hearing pretty regularly, though, were rebellion songs, and those really moved me. The Clancy Brothers -- Tom, Paddy and Liam -- and their buddy Tommy Makem sang them all the time."

In 1992, Mr. Makem and the Clancys were among the stars performing in a gala tribute to Dylan at New York's Madison Square Garden. Eric Clapton, George Harrison, Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Tracy Chapman and Dylan himself took part.

President Mary McAleese of Ireland led the tributes to Mr. Makem, calling him "a superb ambassador for the country, and one of whom we will always be proud."

Even while battling cancer, Mr. Makem continued to perform. He visited Belfast last month to receive an honorary degree and returned to his native Armagh.

Survivors include his wife, Mary Makem, and four children. His three sons, Shane, Conor and Rory, have performed traditional Irish music as the Makem Brothers since 1989.

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